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16-year-olds leave their marks on the road

They're revving their motors across the nation, enjoying themselves as they explore the expanded horizons which have been given them in the form of a small plastic card with their name and photograph on it.

They have their driver's license. They're 16. They're ready to roll, fresh from an entire school year's apprenticeship under the tutelage of a driver's ed instructor, whom they've been terrorizing all year.

Now, equipped with someone's set of wheels -- usually the parents' -- they're terrifying the parents, who are insurance poor and worried about it getting even worse.

I know they're out there on my roads, because there's a whole new set of black rubber burn-out strips on the local asphalt. They weren't there before. These marks signify these new drivers' awareness of but confusion about the laws of physics and the laws of economics.

The law of physics that deals with this states that if you rev the engine high enough and pop the clutch hard enough, tires will leave immortal (well, the marks last a long time, but maybe not forever) evidence of this teenager's passing. All the world can see that they've been here.

Unlike a deer, 16-year-olds don't have antlers with which to scrape their mark on a tree. Unlike bears, they don't have big claws with which to leave evidence of their ferocity. Now, like all animals which have the natural inclination to leave evidence of their territoriality, adolescent drivers now have theirs too. This is of course thanks to a minimum amount of horsepower and Goodyear.

That law of economics that pertains here -- and this is the one that these new drivers have yet to figure out -- states that given enough long strips of rubber on the road, you will need to purchase new tires. But at this point in their experience, only the first law matters. The second will eventually. Goodyear will see to it.

At least now, what with the price of gasoline climbing steadily, a process we've all been watching, we'll have some company, since they're certainly going to be watching it too. I do seem to remember that at that age there were many more rewarding things to watch. The price of gas didn't seem to mean much. Life was new, and did seem to be going to go on forever. Thus, probably the gas in the tank would, too.

Consequently, we've got a whole new generation with lots of energy but low gas tanks. They won't run out of energy, but they'll soon find that they can run out of gas. I did. So will they. Dad never missed an opportunity to point out to me that, brilliant college engineering student that I was, how come I always ran my car at the bottom of its gas tank, instead of the top. He asked me repeatedly to explain the difference between them.

I couldn't then. I cannot now. Somewhere along the line between maybe-there's-enough-to-get-me-to-town and adulthood. (Coming back from picking up my wife and first newborn baby, I ran out of gas. That was ugly.) I changed my habits. I haven't prayed at a low gas gauge for a long time. Oh, sure, there have been a few times I've threatened a low gas situation with reference to a higher power, but fewer and fewer.

As dad pointed out, what's the difference? Run on the top half. It'll cost the same, right? Well, right. They should have put the empty in the middle of the gauge, maybe. Whatever. It's a lot harder now to run a car out of gas, because there are now ringing bells, beeping chimes, and sometimes even voices to remind you that you had better not be too far from a petrol pump.

Although cars may well be to the point where they're talking, none of them quite come up to the level of comments that dad made when he was gotten out of bed at midnight. My brother and I soon learned that it was far better to walk home several miles that to count on much sympathy from him.

My high school steady and I ran out of gas one night, as I remember. "Oh, don't worry," she said, "dad'll bring us some. He won't mind." As it turned out, he might not have minded bringing her some, but I was another story. A long story, one that I'll spare you. It turned out that he too, like my dad, subscribed to the impossible theory that one could as easily run off the top of the tank, as off the bottom.

I expect to hear one of these new drivers knocking on my door any night now. "Do you have some extra gas?"

Matter of fact, not as much as I used to, if you know what I mean.